Police are too Racist for Implicit Bias Training to Help

Last week I got my first piece published in Exponents Magazine, the magazine for the Neoliberal Project. I’m also now VP of Comms for San Francisco Sex-Positive Democrats.

I expect to contribute more to Exponents. I’ve got a piece coming out this week on why it’s a great time to defund the Department of Homeland Security. I’m thinking about focusing more on tech policy. I’m particularly interested in surveillance capitalism, the way AI perpetuates identity-based discrimination, how automation is impacting America’s bottom half of earners, regulatory capture by tech industry incumbents, and how shitty and neglected reporting and analysis of tech is relative to its importance.

If you have any areas you think need more attention and/or good people to follow and resources, please comment below.

Meantime, here’s my first for Exponents:

Police are too Racist for Implicit Bias Training to Help

In the wake of worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, police reform is in the air. Among the calls for ending qualified immunity, banning police unions, and rethinking use-of-force policies, some are asking more police officers to undergo implicit bias training. 

Bias Training is a Do-Nothing Reform

The idea that bias training is going to meaningfully change police departments is naive at best. At worst, it’s easy-to-implement weaksauce reform that distracts from the harder, more effective reforms we need to focus on. 

Implicit bias training alerts officers to their own subconscious prejudices with the idea that once police become aware of their unconscious biases, they’ll work toward correcting them. Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Implementation Guide and Campaign Zero recommend bias training police officers. 

Police departments across the country, including in Salt Lake CityNew York, Austin, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis have already spent millions over the past decade on bias training. “In response to broad concerns about racially motivated policing, implicit bias training is becoming a staple among police departments across the United States,” according to Police Chief Magazine. 

There is Little Evidence it Works

This is despite the fact that no evidence suggests bias training impacts police behavior in the field. In fact, where researchers have studied bias training in other contexts they have found it largely ineffective, and can even backfire. Police officers may in fact disproportionately be the kind of people researchers have identified as most likely to become more racist after bias training. 

Frank Dobbin, professor of sociology at Harvard, and Alexandra Kalev, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University, looked at 426 studies on bias training’s effectiveness. “Diversity training is likely the most expensive, and least effective, diversity program around,” the pair wrote for Anthropology Now.

Looking at bias training in other contexts, Dobbin and Kalev found that anti-bias training can actually make some people even more racist and feel more animosity toward other groups. According to Dobbin and Kalev, participants who either refuse to see their own bias or think it’s fine to be biased end up more racist after training. 

It May Make the Problem Officers More Racist

While implicit bias training can help some officers, the little evidence we have indicates it only helps officers who come in already less inclined toward racism. Bias training isn’t effective on cops who are aware of and comfortable with their racial stereotypes.

Take SLCPD Officer Jeffrey Denning. After bias training, Denning said he still viewed racism as a “buzz topic,” overblown relative to its importance. He said that disparate use of force on Black people is more likely due to their “higher degree of crime,” and doubted that his biases might influence his thinking and behavior. 

“You could have the best of intentions and you could do something that you think intuitively makes sense, but it can and often does backfire; it makes things worse,” said Patricia G. Devine, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin who runs a research laboratory on prejudice.

Many white people react to the suggestion that they may have unintentionally engaged in racist thinking or behavior with defensiveness and aggression, according to White Fragility author Robin D’Angelo. These white people often come out of training with more hostility towards racial minorities because they fear they won’t be treated fairly. 

For an example of white fragility in action, we only have to go as far as the president of the International Union of Police Associations. “Your recent statement where you speak of ‘America’s long history of racism and violence against black people’ is inflammatory and patently false,” begins Sam Cabral’s letter in response to a resolution calling for the AFL-CIO to dissociate from the IUPA. 

And when white people see their own biases but don’t want to change, outside pressure to change backfires. Dobbin and Kalev found that participants who didn’t go in wanting to change actually became more biased after training. 

And it appears many police officers enter training with that exact mindset. 

“When they walk into the classroom, the officers are somewhere between defensive and downright hostile,” says Lorie Fridell, a professor of criminology at the University of Florida. “They think we’re gonna shake our fingers at them and call them racist.” 

Brenda L. Leffler has been running bias training for New York’s sergeants. She said many sit in her classroom in silence with their arms crossed. “You can see it on their faces,” Leffler said. “They are waiting for us to call them racists.”

The Police are, in fact, Racist

Perhaps they have reason to be concerned. There is ample evidence that American policing is biased against Black Americans. 

American police stop one-third more Black Americans than white Americans, even though Black Americans make up a smaller percentage of the population. Police pull over more equal numbers of Black and white drivers at night when it’s harder to tell the race of the driver. 

Police are three times more likely to search Black Americans, even though searches of whites are more likely to yield drugs and other contraband. Police are three times more likely to use force against Black suspects and nearly three-and-a-half times more likely to shoot an unarmed person when they’re Black. In one study officers more quickly decided to shoot armed suspects when they were Black.

“Studies dating back to at least 2001 have found police officers are consistently more likely to associate black faces with criminality, to misidentify common objects as weapons after being shown photos of black faces, and to label photos of black people as threatening,” Tom James wrote.

The Examples are Endless

Overt racism is endemic on officer message boards and on national police Facebook groups

Avowed white supremacists have been uncovered in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and across the country. An officer in Salem, Oregon warned armed white supremacists that they were going to teargas protestors so they could avoid getting hit.

An Implicit bias trainer found an “extreme” degree of anti-black sentiment within the San Francisco Police Department. They were hired after dozens of explicitly racist text messages were uncovered following some high-profile police shootings of minority victims. A district court judge found “substantial evidence suggestive of racially selective enforcement.” 

When the ACLU examined the Madison County Sheriff’s Department for systemic racism they found the department’s blank arrest forms came with “Black” and “Male” already filled in.

In Bend, Oregon, one police officer is quoted as saying, “It is going to be a fun time when all white people are in charge,” about an attempt to ouster the city’s Black police chief.

“We are just gonna go out and start slaughtering them fu—– ni—–,” a Wilmington, North Carolina police officer said on dashcam footage. “I can’t wait. God, I can’t wait.”

Policing is Broken, Bias Training Isn’t Going to fix it

In an earlier letter, Cabral listed a series of stereotypes, including single parenthood, unemployment, and crime, often applied to Black families. Cabral was saying police aren’t responsible for these outcomes, but research indicates that in fact, over-policing of Black neighborhoods and over-incarceration does contribute meaningfully to single parenthood, unemployment, and crime. 

It would be great if bias training could help reduce police racism. But the evidence is that bias training is largely ineffective on most people, and actually makes certain kinds of people even more racist. Unfortunately, the evidence is also that police departments employ a lot of those kinds of people. Until we deal with the overt racism in police departments, training cops on their implicit biases isn’t likely to help.


Cathy Reisenwitz is the Founder and CEO of Sex and the State. She’s written for TechCrunch, the Daily Beast, The Week, Reason, and other fine publications. Subscribe to her newsletter: http://eepurl.com/y6qV9 or check out her TwitterInstagram, or OnlyFans.

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